09/26/2002 11:00PM

Great State Challenge puts statebreds on map

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NEW YORK - Breeders' associations are making their lists and checking them twice as a novel racing day designed to promote state programs approaches.

The associations have been asked to identify the best horses bred in their states for the inaugural Great State Challenge, a program of six stakes races scheduled for Dec. 7 at Sam Houston Race Park. Each breeders' association is supposed to submit a list of 10 horses for each of the six races to the Breeders' Cup, the administrator of the event, by Oct. 4, to get the selection process rolling.

The Great State Challenge was designed to reward horsemen, a large constituency of the Breeders' Cup and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, with a chance to run the best horses bred in their states for relatively large purses - $275,000 for each race. The 17 states that have been asked to participate in the event all contribute to the NTRA through their horsemens' organizations. Those that don't contribute - like Louisiana's horsemen - are prohibited from running.

"With the tracks that are members of the NTRA, it's pretty easy to see what you are getting, what the bang for the buck is, whether it be co-op advertising or the promotions," said Pam Blatz-Murff, the senior vice president of Breeders' Cup. "For horsemen, it's not so easily defined. This was designed to give the horsemen's associations a clear benefit."

The six races will include two races for 2-year-olds, divided by sex, at seven furlongs; a six-furlong sprint race for horses 3 years old and up; a turf race at 1 1/8 miles for 3-year-olds and up; a filly and mare race at 1 1/16 miles; and a race for colts and geldings at 1 1/8 miles.

Clearly, the event will not attract the country's best horses. Most championship-eligible horses will have run a month earlier in the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships before being sent off to the farm or a winter vacation. But organizers are hoping that a second-tier of runners will jump at the chance to run for good money in early December, a light part of the calendar in many states.

"I've got [Pacific Classic winner] Came Home at the top of my list for 3-year-olds and older," said David Switzer, the executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association. "I'd love to have him. But one month after the Breeders' Cup Classic, I don't think he's going to run for $275,000 down in Texas. But I still think this is going to be very competitive."

The number of starters in the races has been limited to 14. The eight largest NTRA contributors - California, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Texas - will each have a guaranteed berth in the six races, as long as the horse has won or placed in a black-type stakes race.

The other nine states or provinces - Arizona, Delaware, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Ontario, Canada - will fill the other six spots, based on how their horses are ranked in each division by a selection committee made up of racing secretaries.

Officials of breeders' associations said that the Great State Challenge will allow them to promote their breeding program to a wide audience.

"I think there's a problem where if you are bred in the U.S. and you win a major race, people just assume the horse was bred in Kentucky," said Dick Hancock, the executive director of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association. "States like Florida, California, and Texas, we have a hard time identifying ourselves. This is going to help."